In his historic address Saturday night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reminded us the country has been preempted much of the world in protective measures against. While controversial, these actions have most likely slowed the spread of coronavirus enough to give Israel a fighting chance to control the virus before we reach an overload scenario, like the ones Italy and Iranian are spiraling into.
But in the coming days, we’ll see whether Israel—the people, not just the state—can embrace a spirit of cooperation and generosity that may prove just as important as government intervention. This transformation, of an Israel united in an imperative to help, support and care for one another and the rest of the world, will be decisive.
Reduced to the purely political, Zionism is about ensuring self-determination for the Jewish people. But Zionism was never meant to be reduced to the political; it is, in essence and in practice, a spiritual endeavor.
The core spiritual component of Zionism is for the Jewish people to serve as a light unto the nations. For observant Jews, this is about proving God’s glory and majesty through practicing halacha, the code of religious law, and worship. For non-observant Jews, it’s about holding dear values of charity, kindness and generosity that form the cornerstone of Judaism. And for Israel’s non-Jewish citizens (in particular the Zionists among them) there is similarly a defining value of placing the wellbeing of the group, a belief in the sanctity of human life, over the needs of the self.
As the spread of coronavirus enters a new phase, Israel has a choice to make. On the one hand, we can hunker down and give in to the temptation of fighting only for ourselves and our families (Judaism considers the family like the self). We can take “prepperism” to an extreme and horde and stockpile, each man for himself, until the storm has been weathered.
This approach is rooted in the idea that, when things break down, humanity defaults to what philosopher Thomas Hobbes called a state of nature, a “war of all against all.” Hobbes famously wrote that in such a state life is “Nasty, brutish and short.”
On the other side of this divide is belief that it’s not chaotic nature but God who controls our fate. While this may seem passive, it’s anything but. To believe in a divine order means to live accordingly. It’s to live by the Golden Rule, to treat our “neighbor”—a loose translation from the Hebrew term “ro’ehka,” which I conceive more closely to “fellow man” or even “brother”—as yourself.
In the days of coronavirus, Israel as a people and as a country, can fulfill its mandate by embracing this value. It’s on us to concern ourselves with the well-being of our friends and neighbors as much as ourselves. Even more critically, we have to worry about those who don’t have as much as we, or those who may not even have enough to get through these difficult days.
We might call this corona Zionism. Or just Zionism. It’s the reason Israel exists as a state. But, more to the point, it’s why the Jewish people have survived millennia of tumult far more devastating than what we’re seeing at the moment.
The best part is that it’s simple to do. Pick up the phone to ask the elderly couple across the way if you can leave food by their door. Make a donation to people in need. Find out how your friends are faring. Ask if there’s anything they might need.
When we look back on this time—and hopefully, we’ll be looking back on it soon—this is what we’ll judge ourselves by. Did we get through it cowering in a corner or standing tall as our best selves?
It may be that, already, we’re being judged in this way.